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Pink and Plastic Eden
How Greta Gerwig’s Barbie is a nod to the story of creation, reminding us of our roles in marriage and the sanctity of Motherhood
We start at the beginning, the moment of conception. In our world, before there was something, there was nothing and to create our realm of existence, God first cleared aside the emptiness and voidness of non-existence. And then, He created our world. To quote Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, “That’s what makes a god—or a mother. There’s nothing more intoxicating than creating something from nothing. Creating something from yourself.”
Barbie opens with baby dolls being smashed, destroyed. The role they created for little girls was empty, at heart—forcing them to play-act as mothers before they’d even developed a maternal instinct, training them for a void life of motherhood with no space for any other ambitious goals. With the baby doll-smashing as little girls choose Barbie dolls instead, Gerwig depicted a clearing away of these roles and, in the newly available space, a creation.
Yes, the opening scenes of Barbie are a reference to A Space Odyssey. But Gerwig’s film also greatly alludes to the Bible’s first story. “Barbie was invented first,” the director pointed out in an interview with Vogue. “Ken was invented after Barbie, to burnish Barbie’s position in our eyes and in the world. That kind of creation myth is the opposite of the creation myth in Genesis.”
Though the film maintains that Barbie itself helps empower women to reach for their dreams, it also acknowledges its own faults–that it exists within a predominantly-male corporate world, that it may create unrealistic beauty standards for women–ultimately allowing for a self-aware, nuanced portrayal of what it means to be a woman in a world that hates you for it. Little girls don’t have to limit their dreams to motherhood if they don’t want to. They can be doctors or physicists or Nobel Prize-winners—or, like the movie constantly reinforces, they can just be.
Barbie insists that not only can you be whatever you want, whether you’re a Barbie or a Ken, but you also don’t need to be anything extraordinary to be worthy: if you want to be a mother, or a physicist, or a long-term “long-distance low-commitment casual girlfriend,” or all of the above, or none of the above, you can do it, and you don’t need to feel guilty for not accomplishing all the things you’re supposed to. A powerful monologue by Gloria (America Ferrera), the human Stereotypical Barbie (Margot Robbie) meets in the Real World, points out what many young women have already realized: being a woman, being everyone’s expectation of what it means to perform womanhood correctly, is unachievable.
“It is literally impossible to be a woman. You are so beautiful, and so smart, and it kills me that you don't think you're good enough. Like, we have to always be extraordinary, but somehow we're always doing it wrong,” says Ferrera’s Gloria. Her monologue reminds women: if you subscribe to societal ideals of what it means to be a woman, you will never succeed. This is not pessimism; it’s fact. Barbie tells us that we shouldn’t let societal ideals of what we should be doing stop us from finding purpose and fulfillment in what you do. You choose what you do. And you get to be happy with your choices.
I am a religious Jew, and I am also a feminist, which I’ve been told is a contradiction. But it isn’t: my values, sourced in traditional Jewish teachings, inform and influence my feminism. Most mainstream branches of feminism, and certainly the form of it that informs Barbie’s tone, don’t argue that men and women are the same, but that we should be treated equally. And shouldn’t we be?
Eve was created for Adam not only to help him but to stand opposite him—an equal, despite all their differences. Interpretations of woman as inherently subservient to man ignore the initial man-woman dynamic, and the emphasis of marriage as a partnership, rather than a hierarchy. Gerwig’s gender-flipped inversion of Adam and Eve’s creation, true to history, portrays Barbie as the main priority, with Ken created for her, as if he’s an accessory propping her up—and this isn’t in attempt to portray a feminist utopia, but rather to highlight the flimsiness of a relationship where the two partners don’t see each other, or themselves, as equals. There is no extreme radical feminism here, solely a basic form of feminism that truly has no interest in treating men the way women have been treated over the centuries. Barbie gets to just be Barbie—and Ken gets to just be Ken, too. Kenough.
As a woman, it isn’t difficult to empathize with Ken: how he felt entering a world where finally his gender is the first priority must have been exactly what women felt watching the world of Barbieland on the big screen. Men who have never noticed the effects of a patriarchal hierarchy are supposed to see it clearly within this arc, with the stark differences between Barbieland and reality painting a very clear message to men. Plus, Ken’s introduction of “patriarchy” to Barbieland subjugates women in a far more sinister way than the prior Barbieland hierarchy ever subjugated Kens, not to mention the threats and difficulties Barbie faced in the Real World, just like women do every day. The interpretation of this as a claim that women should be in all positions of power willfully ignores Barbie’s message. It’s not saying this is how it should be, it’s saying that this is how it is in its inverse.
Anti-feminists may argue that women might choose, in larger and larger numbers, not to be wives or mothers, destroying our standard structure of a family, under the guise of concern for Jewish tradition. Perhaps that is the case, but bear in mind that Torah law doesn’t obligate women to get married or have children, and we deserve to make that choice for ourselves. More importantly, though, Barbie makes a point to validate any woman who did choose to be a wife and a mother.
Gloria has a career; she has a husband, one who loves her enough to spend spare time attempting to learn her language; she is a mother. Still, Gloria feels unfulfilled—anxious, with obtrusive thoughts of death, drawing projections of her own frustrations as new Barbie designs. Her monologue is not only powerful to any young woman finding her role, but for mothers: mothers who also have careers, mothers who don’t; mothers who have always only wanted to be mothers, mothers who once had ambitious dreams that they had to relinquish to time and more prominent responsibilities.
In Barbie, Barbie’s real-life creator Ruth Handler, a Jewish woman, is the mother, the Creator—the god of this small thing in Gerwig’s creation story. “Mothers stand still so their daughters can see how far they’ve come,” she says. She’s brimming with pride that Barbie, who started off as a toy, as her idea, is becoming her own person. She doesn’t tell Barbie what to do; she guides Barbie, protects her, and ultimately says that Barbie herself has to choose whether to take the big step back to the human world. Isn’t that an emulation of our Creator, creating new life, giving us free will to do the right things and letting us make our own decisions? Isn’t guidance and protection and the ultimate relinquishing of control in their childrens’ lives the perfect portrayal of what it means to be a mother? Isn't the feminist messaging within Barbie, which uplifts and celebrates mothers and women and yes, even men, merely for being who they are, one of the purest and most universally benevolent forms of feminism?